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Yew and Me

When I first moved into my house, which is a few blocks up from Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver’s west side, my elderly neighbour to the right, if you are going west, shrieked at my kids, who were 5, 6 and 8 years old at the time, for going into her yard to retrieve their ball. She was a fastidious gardener. I let my grass grow tall. She reported me to the City, which sent inspectors who threatened me with fines if I didn’t cut my grass “to keep within the neighbourhood look”.

I asked them if everyone else let their grass grow and I cut mine would I still be in trouble?  I put up a sign that said “Please Keep Up the Grass” but it got torn down. I put up another sign that said “We are Cultivating Tolerance” but it also got torn down.

When my elderly neighbour died I dug up my grass and grew vegetables in the front, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchinis, onions in the summer, broccoli, Swiss chard and garlic in the fall. All was peaceful for many years.

Then my elderly neighbour on the left, if you are going east, died, and a couple I’d seen at an environmental protest bought the property.

They were planning major renovations and needed my letter to the City agreeing to their non-conforming design. I gave it to them, and for a year my brain felt as if it was constantly being stapled,  but I comforted myself with the thought that at least the racket was on behalf of a family and not faceless developers.

One day, with nary a word of discussion, the new owners entered my yard and hacked my beloved old yew tree in half. Whoosh went a lacy curtain thirty feet in height and fifteen feet in width. Where once was natural perfection now there was a huge gash in my landscape that exposed the ugly construction site next door.

The new owners explained themselves by saying,  “we didn’t think you’d want the privacy” and “we don’t like the look of trees hanging over things.”  NIMBY: they liked trees but Not In My Back Yard.

I shook my psychic fist at them and yelled  “imperialists” into their faces. Like the corporations they’d felt entitled to do the irredeemable. I had a full grown tree planted and made them pay for it—and once again I have neighbours I don’t talk to.

I’ve lived in Kitsilano since the 1960s. It’s where the Squamish Nation lived for thousands of years before they were displaced by British settlers at the end of the 19th Century. In the 1970s, when the developers saw what a nice job the artists and hippies had done with the area, they swooped down and the people who’d improved the neighbourhood got pushed out by bizarro rents and expensive redevelopments.

Strict zoning laws have kept buildings low and property values high. The air is clean, the landscape lush. Before prices went berserk my family chipped in on a down payment on a subdivided craftsman-style house built in 1909. Being a landlady, even to two tenants, is a big responsibility and the price I pay for being able to stay. Though I now have to defer property taxes, I stay on because community and continuity matter.

Everything I need is within walking distance, good food stores and a library, the oldest branch in the province, with a security guard outside of it who talks into her calculator. I love hearing about the Aga Khan from the couple who run the post office, going to the Hollywood Theatre because it’s still the cheapest theatre in town. If the movie I see turns out to be dreck I don’t feel too ripped off. Sometimes I’ll run into my pal Mel Lehan, who has twice run against our fascist premier in our riding and twice given him a run for his money, or I might bump into George Stanley at the bakery or Barbara at the Seven Seas Fish Market where we sometimes exchange recipes for mussels.

A few times a week I’ll drop by the Sally Ann on Broadway; we are a society of strangers but there’s been same group of us over the years, swapping opinions on the merchandise. Every day, Chris, of the long white beard, sets up a lovely display along the chain link fence at 4th and Macdonald, furniture, books, electronics and clothing, which he then gives away free to whoever needs it.  “I’m trying to topple the economy,” he tells me.

In the early 1970s I ran a free store in my basement where people donated or took things, depending on what they had. No money ever changed hands. I still have the oak printer’s cabinet, full of lead print, from the Divine Light Mission free sale.

I love biking to Jericho Beach, finding myself lost in the paradise of that park, the propaganda of the mountains and the water.  When I first came to Vancouver there were no homeless people, no beggars on the street, few people who were visibly helpless.  There was only the Umbrella Woman at the corner of Granville and Georgia, her umbrella held high above her in all kinds of weather.  Neck craned, face beseeching the sky, it was as if at any minute she might lift off and fly.

If she were here today, I’d want to join her.

894 w. November 18, 2009

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Renee Rodin

Renee Rodin

Renee Rodin is a Vancouver writer and longtime activist

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